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September 18, 2000
Pasteurization: The Juicy Details
By Meredith Phillips

Image: Pasteurization

Every autumn, when the air gets a chill and fruit hangs heavy from the trees, farm stands crop up to sell the nectar of the harvest: fresh-pressed apple cider. Fall wouldn't be the same without it, but let the buyer beware. Children, who are the biggest juice consumers, are susceptible to harmful bacteria that can be present in raw juices. In fact, children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems should not drink juices that have not been pasteurized.

Pasteurization is a very basic process -- heat a food or beverage to a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time, and certain harmful bacteria will be destroyed. While most milks and juices are pasteurized, certain fresh-squeezed, fresh-pressed, and raw juices, like apple cider, are generally thought to be too acidic to be dangerous. Also, there is a belief that both the taste and the nutritional value of a juice is affected during pasteurization. However, fresh juices can contain life-threatening bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella . And even a microscopic amount of certain strains of E. coli can be deadly.

While contamination by bacteria is most likely to occur during the harvest, it can also occur any point during the process of juice extraction or bottling. Because of certain cases where children became seriously ill, the Food and Drug Administration was prompted to develop a plan of action that juice makers will eventually be required to use. Named the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan, it is designed to make every step of the juice making process safe.

HACCP will take two or three years to be up and running. In the meantime, the FDA has decreed that all unpasteurized juices for sale after November 5th (1999) must bear the label "WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and, therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems."

The Juicy Details

  • Watch for unpasteurized cider found at farms stands, farmer's markets, and in the supermarket. Other unpasteurized juices, like fresh-squeezed orange juices, are often found in the produce department of the supermarket. (Juice sold at room temperature or in glass containers has likely been pasteurized.)
  • Boiling an unpasteurized juice is a way to kill harmful bacteria; serve hot (boiled) cider with a stick of cinnamon to a child instead of chilled cider.
  • Check with your child's school or daycare center to assure that children will not be drinking raw juices.
  • When in doubt about the safety of a juice, don't let a person with a weakened immune system, a child, or an elderly person drink it.

Beyond the Glass

Being cautious about juice is one way to lower the risk of food-borne illnesses. Here are a few other things you can do to help you and your children avoid infection.

  • Avoid swallowing water while swimming.
  • Make sure to wash fresh produce thoroughly, especially fruits and vegetables that will not be cooked.
  • Cook all beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Keep raw meats separate from other foods. With hot soapy water, wash hands and all utensils that may have touched raw or undercooked meat during cooking.
  • People with diarrhea, especially children, must wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

E. Coli can Kill

Anyone who has experienced the intense symptoms of food poisoning -- vomiting, fever, stomach cramps, headache, and diarrhea -- can attest that contracting a gastrointestinal bug is no day in the park. But what some people don't realize is that E. coli and salmonella can kill, especially young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

In most circumstances, an E. coli infection causes diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Usually, the illness takes 5-10 days to run its course and, though very uncomfortable, isn't fatal. Antibiotics do not seem to help and in fact may increase the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a cause of death due to kidney failure as a result of serious E. coli infection. People with bloody diarrhea, a fever, or those who have not been able to keep liquid down for 24 hours should see a doctor right away so he can test for E. coli.

The salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps from 12 to 72 hours after infection, and it lasts for 4-7 days. People do not usually need to be treated, except for severe diarrhea that leads to dehydration, or a spread of the infection to the blood stream. Dehydration may require rehydration with an IV, and a progressive infection marked by fever or a change in mental status can cause death if it is not treated with antibiotics. Complications are most likely to occur in children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

If you believe you've contracted E. coli or salmonella poisoning, stay hydrated (drink lots of fluids), and avoid anti-diarrheal medication. If symptoms persist for over 24 hours, or are accompanied by fever, change in mental status, or the inability to intake fluids, call your doctor immediately.